Born Yvo (some sources say Ivo) Livi, October 3, 1921, in Monsummano Alto, Italy; died November 9, 1991; changed name to Yves Montand c. 1930; son of Giovanni (a broom maker) and Giuseppina Livi; married Simone Signoret (an actress), December 22, 1951; children: Catherine Allegret (adopted stepdaughter), Valentin (son, with Carole Amiel).

Yves Montand was Italian by birth, but he nonetheless came to represent the quintessential Frenchman: charming, politically outspoken, and possessing an air that was world-weary but at the same time lighthearted. Shifting effortlessly between the stage and screen throughout his career, he distinguished himself both as a singer and as an actor capable of playing a wide range of roles. In addition to his professional efforts, Montand drew much attention for his association with controversial political causes, as well as for his involvement with some of the world's most desirable women. So respected and popular was he in France that in the 1980s he was urged to run for public office. The London Times reported his response to that call: "[U.S. president Ronald] Reagan stood because he was a bad actor. Since I'm a good one, I won't."

Montand was taken to the south of France shortly after his birth, when his father, the owner of a broom factory, was threatened by the fascists then gaining power in Italy. Growing up in a poor suburb of Marseilles, Montand was a mediocre student, and his formal education was cut short when the family's financial troubles forced him to go to work full time at age 11.

He continued to work hard throughout his adolescence, finding relief from the burdens of everyday life in the local movie theater, which featured American comedies, musicals, and Westerns. In that theater, his dream to become a performer was born, and before he was 18 years old, he had made his debut at a local amateur night with an act that included imitations of Donald Duck and Maurice Chevalier. By 1939, he had graduated to the respectable Alhambra Theatre in Marseilles and an act with a Wild West theme.

World War II interrupted his career briefly, but by February, 1944, Montand had reached the ABC music hall in Paris, where his cowboy songs were again a success. Within a few months, he had become the lover of legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf- -as well as her protege. She convinced him to drop his cowboy image and provided him with a more romantic, poetic repertoire of songs, which he performed in his first one-man show at the Theatre de l'Etoile in October, 1945. French critics responded enthusiastically, proclaiming Montand to be a major new star.

Piaf continued to boost Montand's career, providing him with his first screen role in Etoile sans lumiere in 1946. That same year, he starred in Les Portes de la nuit, a musical that failed miserably at the box office but provided Montand with a song that remained his trademark throughout his career-- Jacques Prevert's "Feuilles mortes" ("Autumn Leaves").

Upon his return to the Theatre de l'Etoile for another engagement in 1946, Montand was acknowledged as one of the most popular performers in France, but his career took a temporary nosedive shortly after that engagement, when Piaf broke her liaison with him. For many months he toured the provinces, uncertain of what his life held next. Then in August of 1949, he met the next woman who would further his success--actress Simone Signoret, then married to director Yves Allegret.

Signoret and Montand began a tempestuous affair that led to their marriage in 1951. The actress was, by Montand's own admission, much more culturally and politically aware than he, and he became her willing pupil, taking part in ban-the-bomb appeals and other leftist political activities. Their refusal to denounce the Communist Party (of which neither was a member) effectively barred them from entering the United States during the McCarthy era.

During 1950 and 1951, Montand made a musical tour of Europe and North Africa, then returned to the screen to play a radical driving through Central America with a truck full of nitroglycerine in the thriller Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear). That role established him as a serious actor, and he followed it with an acclaimed performance in a French adaptation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which also featured Signoret.

The couple then embarked on a tour of the Soviet bloc countries, but their support for the Communists had been cooled by the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and they expressed their disapproval to each Soviet leader they met. On returning to France, Montand enjoyed a six-month engagement at the Etoile in Paris and a record-breaking tour of the provinces. Shortly thereafter, he and Signoret were cordially invited to the United States.

After six sold-out weeks at the Henry Miller Theater in New York City, Montand and his wife travelled to Hollywood, where both were wooed by American movie makers. Montand agreed to star opposite Marilyn Monroe in the musical comedy Let's Make Love. The film itself generated far less excitement among the public than did the brief affair that occurred between the two leads.

After appearing in several more American films during the early 1960s, Montand embarked on a musical tour of Japan, England, France, and the United States, then took on another dramatic stage role in the French version of A Thousand Clowns. Several films followed, and it was not until 1968 that Montand once again assumed the role of singer. The occasion was a month-long engagement in Paris. The one-man show drew raves, with critics exclaiming that Montand did nothing but improve with age. Ironically, the performance prompted Montand to give up the concert stage for some thirteen years; he was concerned that the adulation he received would destroy his ability to look at himself critically.

The late 1960s and the 1970s ushered in the peak of Montand's film career. He starred in three classic political thrillers directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, Z, L'Aveu, and Etat de siege, as well as numerous other dramas, comedies, and one musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which he co- starred with Barbra Streisand. He interrupted his screen work only occasionally, to stage benefit concerts for political causes. But as the 1980s dawned, he revived his singing career once again, drawing huge and surprisingly young audiences in Paris, New York, Brazil, and Japan. In 1982, his one-week run at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York made history as the first unaccompanied solo performance ever given there by a popular singer.

Montand was preparing for yet another concert tour in the mid- 1980s when he was approached by film director Claude Berri, who offered him the role of the unethical French patriarch whose schemes prove to be his own undoing in the two-part saga Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Montand refused at first; he was unwilling to play an old man, and eager to get on with his tour. But he reconsidered, and finally accepted what is generally regarded as the finest movie role of his career. The two films were smash hits on both sides of the Atlantic, with Montand's performance considered at least as vital as that of co-star Gerard Depardieu.

Signoret died of cancer while Montand was at work on the films, and in the wake of her death, he drove himself at a more hectic pace than ever, promoting the films, continuing his political activism, and planning a television musical. He also became romantically involved with his secretary, Carole Amiel, and in 1988, she gave birth to his first child. He was 67 years old.

Montand slowed down briefly to enjoy his son's babyhood, but by the time the child had reached the age of three, he had decided to mount a new stage show. The show was in the planning stages, and Montand was filming a new movie with director Jean-Jacques Beineix when he suffered a fatal heart attack. According to People contributor Marjorie Rosen, as he was en route to the hospital where he died, Montand assured the ambulance crew: "I have lived well enough to have no regrets."

by Joan Goldsworthy

Yves Montand's Career

Singer and actor. Worked variously in a pasta factory, a metal factory, a beauty salon, and on the docks; performed as a singer, Marseilles, France, during the 1930s; debuted at ABC music hall, Paris, France, 1944; first one-man show at Theatre de l'Etoile, Paris, October, 1945; made film debut in Etoile sans lumiere ("Star Without Light"), 1946; appeared in 54 films, including Le Salaire de la peur ("The Wages of Fear"), 1953, Let's Make Love, 1960, Sanctuary, 1961, My Geisha, 1962, Compartiment tueurs ("The Sleeping Car Murders"), 1965, Paris brule-ti-il? ("Is Paris Burning?"), 1966, La Guerre est finie ("The War Is Over"), 1966, Z, 1969, L'Aveu ("The Confession"), 1970, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, 1970, Etat de siege ("State of Siege"), 1973, Cesar and Rosalie, 1972, Garcon!, 1983, Jean de Florette, 1986, and Manon des Sources ("Manon of the Springs"), 1986.

Yves Montand's Awards

New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actor, 1966, for The War Is Over.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 16 years ago

I saw Yves Montand doing a wonderful show at l'etoile theatre in 1952--in Paris. where he sang "Une demoiselle sur une balancoir," "A Paris," and recited "Barbara," poem by Jacques Prevert. Does anybody know where the old theatre de L'Etoile actually was? If somebody does would they please let me know. I'm working on a memoir.